‘Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town’ Film Review: Mackenzie Davis Wanders Listlessly Through L.A., As Does the Film

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There’s a very good probability that the story of how first-time writer-director Christian Papierniak finagled the (rather impressive) cast for his feature debut is vastly more interesting than the (rather unimpressive) film itself. “Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town” stars the button-eyed, open-hearted Mackenzie Davis as a woman traveling from Los Angeles’ Westside to its… middle, encountering zany strangers and indignant loved ones along the way, played by the likes of Lakeith Stanfield, Carrie Coon, Alia Shawkat, Annie Potts, and Haley Joel Osment.

If the presences of Potts and Osment doesn’t give you a ’90s flashback, the premise of “Izzy” certainly will. The hungover titular character has five or so hours to travel from Venice to Los Feliz, the location of her ex-boyfriend’s (Alex Russell) engagement party. (Whatever authenticity Papierniak might have been reaching for by name-checking so many LA neighborhoods throughout the protagonist’s journey is undone by the overwhelming whiteness of the film.)

Slighter than a blade of grass, “Izzy” presents us with a pseudo-novel conceit through which we learn who the woman we’re accompanying on her haphazard jaunt is, and why she doesn’t just ride the bus or call a Lyft like the rest of us would.

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The self-serious meditations on fate and responsibility — as well as the uneven but ever-charged flare-ups between Izzy and whoever she’s talking to — recall exercises in an acting class. By the end, we understand her motivations and recent biography, but precious little about who she is as a person.

Davis strives mightily to make the material at hand more than intermittently engaging, but she fights a losing battle against an amateurish, underwritten script. Two exceptions do emerge. Izzy wears a soiled caterer’s uniform throughout the day, and her dire financial straits — and the ingenuity they inspire — lead her to the home of a software engineer (Osment) who had once hired her via Task Rabbit to write a letter initiating divorce.

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Pushing her way in, Izzy convinces Walt to give her an odd job then and there — which happens to involve the pink-suited stranger (Shawkat) asleep on a chair in the middle of his living room. The off-book gig is whimsical and romantic, and yet movingly evocative of economic desperation.

Unsurprisingly, Coon deftly pulls off the film’s emotional heavy-lifting as Izzy’s more stable sister Virginia, who left behind their sororal artistic collaboration to forge a new life. Coon arrives like a UFO: eerily calm, intriguingly unknowable yet instantly recognizable, commanding everyone’s attention within a 10-mile radius. As the only person to call Izzy out and actually be heard, Virginia’s scenes herald a climactic emotional reckoning that never actually takes place.

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Potts nearly manages to achieve her own show-stopping moment as the rare kind soul that Izzy stumbles across, but her scenes, as well as Stanfield’s, ultimately just blend into the yammer-a-thon. The visual flourishes aren’t much better: the pink-hued dream sequences involving a mysterious woman (Dolly Wells) and a younger version of Izzy (Ryan Simpkins) should be returned to the first year of film school whence it came.

Sometimes the journey is the destination, and sometimes the journey is the background to wondering for 85 minutes straight why such a talented group of actors are slumming in banality.



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‘Superfly’ Film Review: Remake Updates Blaxploitation Genre With Wit and Resonance

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you’re constantly surrounded by armed stupidity. That’s the wise revelation that launches “SuperFly,” the new remake of the 1972 blaxploitation classic starring Ron O’Neal.

In both versions, a successful coke dealer named Priest decides to pull off one last job before retiring from the drug business, only to find himself in a Chinese finger trap: The harder he tries to get out, the more he’s pulled back in.

Helmed by music video visionary Director X (making his feature debut) and written by Alex Tse (“Watchmen”), “SuperFly” is a delightful surprise: funny, brutal, stylish, and thoughtful. It updates the blaxploitation genre with wit and resonance: Police brutality is an inescapable scourge in Priest’s Atlanta, and our hero dispatches one of his enemies while toppling over a Confederate statue.

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Sure, young star Trevor Jackson (“Grown-ish,” “American Crime”) can’t fill O’Neal’s effortlessly dapper, achingly world-weary shoes, and few movie soundtracks can rival Curtis Mayfield’s legendary album for the first “Super Fly.” But this is a remake worthy of its original.

Even its familiar themes eventually give way to greater complexity: The asset that gives Priest his edge in the streets is his discretion, i.e., the ability to stay under the radar. But as his aspirations grow bigger — there’s no greater ambition than leaving the drug life behind in Priest’s world — his friends want a bigger slice of the pie, a rival gang grows hostile, the cartel from whom Priest buys his product won’t let him retire, and the police catch on.

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Most compellingly, Priest’s best friend Eddie (Jason Mitchell, nearly stealing the picture as he did in “Straight Outta Compton) throws some cold water on Priest’s dream of leaving everything he knows behind. The debate between their opposing viewpoints, about whether it’s safer to run or stay as a black man in America, is brief but fascinating. As in the original, Priest’s final undertaking is complicated, yet wholly comprehensible.

And true to its roots, “SuperFly” is also about flair and humor, which it has in spades. This is a movie that knows how to make the most of an egg-white snakeskin jacket, as well as a supporting role by Outkast’s Big Boi. A dirty cop singing Chamillionaire’s “Ridin,’” about racial profiling by the police, had my screening howling in laughter. Similarly striking is the spectacle of the adversarial gang, Snow Patrol (led by Rick Ross and Allen Maldonado), in head-to-toe, toothpaste-commercial white: A swell of urban Stormtroopers in chalk-colored clothes, cars, even a hearse.

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Jackson isn’t particularly emotive on his own, but he has such stirring, naturalistic chemistry with his co-stars — Mitchell, Michael K. Williams (playing his mentor, Scatter), and Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo (playing the two girlfriends in his domestic triad) — that I feared for Priest’s loved one’s lives whenever they were on screen.

“SuperFly” is the first blaxploitation remake to come out of the gate this decade; newer editions of “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones,” and “Foxy Brown” are currently in the works. Despite the all-around excellence of “SuperFly,” I’m not sure we need to resurrect the 70s right now. But as long as we’re mired in franchise culture, you could do far worse than a double feature of “SuperFly” and “Ocean’s 8” — crime movies where the historically disenfranchised groups are finally encouraged to enjoy revenge.



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‘Book Club’ Film Review: Women-of-a-Certain-Age Sex Comedy Has Poignancy Beneath the Pratfalls

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It’s a credit to TV’s greater curiosity and openmindedness that when I beheld the four stars of “Book Club” — actresses ranging in age from 65 to 80 — my thoughts turned to how recently I’d seen them on their respective shows or in headlines about their upcoming series.

The ensemble romantic comedy benefits enormously from Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen keeping their comedic and dramatic muscles warmed up (though a stiffer Candice Bergen has her bravura moments, too). None of the women are asked to do anything too strenuous in “Book Club,” but their collective charisma — along with their male co-stars’ — add up to an irresistible charmfest.

The premise of “Book Club” sounds, to be honest, excruciatingly dumb: A quartet of elderly friends are inspired by the “50 Shades of Grey” books to spice up their sex lives. But first-time director Bill Holderman, who penned the script with Erin Simms, smartly adds a pinch of salt to the sweetness to amplify both sides of the flavor spectrum.

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The film’s aspirational, 60-is-the-new-40 fantasies feel grounded enough in emotional truths and aging concerns that the most unrealistic thing about these literate ladies, who deliver guffaw-worthy lines about Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” is that they never once mock “50 Shades” author E.L. James’ atrocious prose.

“Book Club” opens with an awkwardly Photoshopped snapshot of the four main characters in their youth, clinging to their copies of Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying.” Now a few years shy of 70, all but one feels erotically adrift. The exception is commitment-phobic Vivian (Fonda), a luxury hotel owner (in attention-grabbing animal prints) who’s happy as a lifelong bachelorette but finds herself drawn to an old boyfriend (Don Johnson) who’s visiting Los Angeles.

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The others are in various stages of sexual shutdown. The most resistant to an erotic rekindling is federal judge Sharon (Bergen), who internet-stalks her ex-husband (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his decades-younger new fiancée and seemingly hasn’t been on a date since her divorce 18 years ago. Chef Carol (Steenburgen), the only one friend still married, struggles with her husband’s (Craig T. Nelson) utter lack of interest in sex.

Widowed homemaker Diane (Keaton, in a first-rate set of her signature androgynous garb) is needled by her condescending daughters (Katie Aselton and Alicia Silverstone) to move to Scottsdale, where she can be stuffed into the basement and supervised 24/7. Diane shows resistance even before she meets a stranger on a plane (a positively smoldering Andy Garcia) who’s willing to show her everything she missed out on during her lackluster marriage. Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn make brief appearances, but somehow Sam Elliott does not.

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To be sure, “Book Club” has more goofy gags than it does witticisms. An arrow on a plant moisture meter twitches from “dry” to “wet” when a character gets lost in Christian Grey’s Red Room, and Nelson’s character is marched into several situations fly-first after a Viagra accident leaves him fuming and erect. The cast is just as game for the broad humor as it is for the emotional beats; the latter’s familiarity doesn’t detract from its poignancy.

As movingly as each character’s romantic and/or familial storyline wraps up, though, I wish the core cast had a few more scenes to themselves. They share such an easygoing chemistry — and the inevitable scene where the friends diagnose one another on what they’re doing wrong hints at such layers of friendship — that it felt disappointing that their decades-long bond wasn’t the focus of the movie. The men are a treat. But there isn’t quite enough of the women to comprise a feast.



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‘Terminal’ Film Review: Margot Robbie’s Silkiness Wasted in Polyester Movie

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The vision board for “Terminal” must have been incredible. It’s certainly easy to picture: the cold geometry of Stanley Kubrick married to the sleazy neons of Nicolas Winding Refn, a pair of smirking hitmen ripped from some Tarantino-flavored auteur of the month, tossed in with a Party City vision of femininity: sexy waitress, sexy nurse, quasi-demure stripper.

Like a teen’s journal, writer-director Vaughn Stein’s debut feature is a scrapbook stuffed with allusions. The fondness is clear. But the resulting compilation is self-indulgent twaddle.

Many an award-season darling sees a terrible project come out in the months right before or after Oscar night, with distributors hoping that a star’s time in the spotlight will boost the profile of an otherwise forgettable film. “Terminal” is Margot Robbie’s. In her first on-screen role since her virtuosic turn as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya,” Robbie at least looks like she’s having fun as a Cockney-cadenced waitress-stripper-hitwoman with the apparent moral compass of an Iron Maiden.

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She makes hokey, on-the-nose lines like “I have an unquenchable thirst for darkness and depravity” sound like silk sheets rubbing against each other. But this brain-dead material resists being elevated even to the level of schlocky fun.

Plaudits are due, if nothing else, to cinematographer Christopher Ross (“Trust”) and location scout Benjamin Bailey (“Show Dogs”). They give this fatuous drama its best elements: its tasteful gaudiness and its lurid, borderline-fantastical atmosphere, which could have carried the picture some ways were it not for the tinselly, discount-Martin McDonagh dialogue. It’s so bad a knockoff you can practically taste the lead.

The plot is hazy, but does take shape eventually. In her first scene, Annie, cigarette in hand, makes a deal with a priest — or just a raspy, demon-voiced man sitting in the padre’s side of the confessional. She’ll prove herself worthy of a stack of assassin’s assignments, or the man on the other side of the sin box can watch her die. Until the final five or so minutes, viewers will suffer through a similar level of narrative opacity.

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Annie flirts aggressively with two of the three men who end up at the cafe where she works, seemingly alone, in the middle of the night. A professorial weenie, Bill (Simon Pegg), is the first to arrive. Dressed like Vincent Van Gogh in a red-flecked beard and a large, woolen overcoat, he reveals that he’s terminally ill, an admission that sends Annie into a dizzy spin about all the ways he could kill himself, and all the reasons why he should. The Manic Pixie Suicide Girl act is grating, and the film’s one good line is when Annie is finally called out on it.

The sarcastic server is kinder to the younger, taller, and more handsome of the two mercenaries who stop by the cafe while awaiting instructions for their next job. They exist mostly so that Annie can flaunt her sexual power: She tells hunky Alfred (Max Irons) to stay (“I need someone to butter my buns for”) and irascible Vince (Dexter Fletcher) to shoo. Already at each other’s throats after spending the last two weeks holed up in an apartment with each other, Annie becomes the willing Yoko of their strained partnership. Mike Myers co-stars as a train station janitor, his break from semi-retirement as wasted as Goldie Hawn’s in “Snatched.”

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Most of the plot and character development in “Terminal” take the form of twists: grandiose and supremely dumb backstories that attempt to recontextualize Annie’s motivations into something resembling female righteousness. (Such last-minute reshuffling might have been more convincing if it weren’t for the gratuitous sexualization of the main character, or the fact that Robbie has the sole speaking female role in the film.)

“Terminal” gives audiences no reasons to treat it any differently than how Robbie likely will: Something to move on from.



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‘Breaking In’ Film Review: Gabrielle Union Battles Burglars and Script Limitations

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

After Wonder Woman, the most famous super-powered woman in America is the mythical mother who can lift a car to save her child. I’ve always wondered where’s the movie about her, that remarkable everymom who’s as strong as Clark Kent and as regimented as Bruce Wayne.

There’s no barehanded raising of vehicles in “Breaking In,” but this home-invasion thriller from director James McTeigue’s (“V is for Vendetta”) more than fills that gap. Starring Gabrielle Union, “Breaking In” is a Mother’s Day movie for the family that already saw “A Quiet Place” together. It feels just as calculated, in fact, as those Garry Marshall-directed holiday-themed ensemble films that no one liked, but everyone saw. But the film’s undisguised mom-power cheerleading is so scarce in mainstream entertainment that it’s difficult to mind.

What does miff about “Breaking In,” though, is how the film’s commercial aspirations seem to get in the way of character and thematic development. Save for a couple of early scenes, Union’s Shaun Russell is largely shorn of history and personality; even the shirt she wears for the entire movie is a plain white tee.

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Shaun attempts to protect her kids from robbers in the house she grew up in after the sudden death of her estranged, seemingly abusive father (Damien Leake). But the screenplay by Ryan Engle (“Rampage,” “The Commuter”) squanders its potential for emotional depth, making “Breaking In” a serviceable, but indistinct product.

Displaying little grief after her father’s hit-and-run murder, Shaun brings her children — adolescent daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus, “13 Reasons Why”) and pre-teen son Glover (Seth Carr, “Bosch”) — to the sprawling estate where she grew up, and on which they’d never set foot until now, to clear out the house for sale. Unbeknownst to the trio, four million dollars sits in a safe inside the house, money that a quartet of thieves (Billy Burke, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, and Mark Furze) have come to snatch.

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The manse is neither drool-worthy nor particularly convincing: immaculate counters and a lack of personal touches, save for a few family photos, make it pretty obvious that the set designer was on a strict budget. That’s fine, except that the too-clean interiors add to the sense of the characters being deliberately buffed out, or never given many details in the first place. Either way, there’s a defensiveness in the film’s less-is-more ethos, as if to make Shaun and her family as unobjectionable as possible — a decision that deprives the storyline of more layered stakes.

While one of the burglars wrestles with Shaun outside, the others kidnap Jasmine and Glover and sequester them in a room. Shaun’s attempts to get back inside of this intensively surveilled building to rescue her children keep shifting the calculus of the criminals’ end game: How many Russell children would it be best to keep alive? The twists and turns are plentiful and effective, but mostly humdrum movie material. Only an early scene, in which Shaun stabs one of the intruders with a broken piece of the wine glass she was sipping from just moments earlier, stands out as an ingenious bit of genre play.

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In the midst of all the unease, Union shares a surprisingly moving scene with Alexus, in which the mother, planning a bold gambit, encourages her daughter to go along with the new plan in a speech that doubles as a possible goodbye. Union doesn’t get to exert too much of herself in this role, except physically. But she’s such a genial presence that it’s fun watching her embrace Shaun’s calm relentlessness, as well as her maternal warmth.

Moms can do it all, “Breaking In” proclaims. So why does it give Union only so much to do?



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‘RBG’ Film Review: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life Makes for a Snappy But Surface-Level Documentary

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Thanks to the unpredictable whims of the internet, there’s no telling where the next pop-cultural obsession will come from. In recent years, medieval portraiture, a tragic trip to the zoo (RIP Harambe), the rat-and pizza-slice-infested subways of NYC, and the celebratory queering of a horror character meant to symbolize grief and extreme parental resentment have all served as unlikely Twitter sensations.

In that context, the Supreme Court doesn’t seem too far-fetched as the source of enduring virality. (An Etsy search for “RBG” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s initials — today turns up more than 2,000 listings for shirts, mugs, pins, toys and other items commemorating the 85-year-old justice.) Opening six months before an awards-season biopic about the jurist starring Felicity Jones (the heinously titled “On the Basis of Sex,” written by Ginsburg’s nephew), the new documentary “RBG” attempts to humanize the woman behind the “Notorious R.B.G.” meme but ends up mostly printing the legend instead.

Directed by Julie Cohen (“The Sturgeon Queens”) and TV producer Betsy West, “RBG” is a proficient but prosaic overview of Ginsburg’s (exceptional) life and (world-improving) accomplishments. If you know enough to be impressed by the Supreme Court justice to check out this doc, you’ve probably heard at least a few of the oft-told statistics and anecdotes that burnish the RBG myth here.

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Ginsburg was one of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law, cared for a baby and a sick husband while besting her male classmates there, graduated at the top of her class (tied for first place) at Columbia Law, and couldn’t find a job when she graduated in 1959. She was a product, then a spearhead, of feminism’s second wave, eventually winning five of the six court cases she argued before the Supreme Court in defense of gender equality.

The lawsuits she picked up were part of a tactical plan to dismantle legal discrimination against women. In one of the relatively few revealing interview scenes, Ginsburg likens explaining that sexism exists to the nine male justices in the nation’s highest court to being a kindergarten teacher.

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Friends and family describe her as reserved, serious, and even-keeled. (In archival footage, we see her declare with the utmost humility, “The law is something I deal with well.”) That’s pretty much the figure we see, as Cohen and West follow the monkish Ginsburg home, where she’s known to work into the wee hours of the night, as well as to the gym, the opera, and a sculpture garden. A glimpse into her closet full of lace collars is almost worth the price of admission, but I wish the filmmakers had asked the visually distinctive justice, whose love of graphically bold earrings evidently goes back decades, her thoughts on the role of feminine accoutrements in a field as iconographically austere as the law.

Ginsburg’s sobriety falls away when discussing two topics: opera and her deceased husband Marty Ginsburg, whose all-consuming love for his brilliant wife translated into supporting her dreams and ambitions, from housework to campaigning for a Supreme Court seat on her behalf. (To quote another meme, Get you a man who can do both.)

The talking heads that “RBG” line up are certainly impressive, including Bill Clinton, who nominated Ginsburg to the Court in 1993, and Gloria Steinem, who calls her “the closest thing to a superhero I know.” (None of the other Supreme Court justices were interviewed.) Irin Carmon, who co-wrote the “Notorious RBG” bestseller, wisely notes of Ginsburg’s unexpected late-in-life fame, “Who is more disdained or told to go away than an older woman?”

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But in spite of the significant run time dedicated to a string of cases that made Ginsburg’s career as a feminist legal activist, it’s difficult to get a full sense of significance of her case work in the 1970s or her role in the women’s struggle at large.

After a spirited first hour, “RBG” slumps in the final third act as it focuses on Ginsburg the social-media icon. Between superficial mentions of social-media scandals, Cohen and West offer the cinematic equivalent of small talk, as we learn that the justice loves handing out “Notorious R.B.G.” t-shirts as gifts and see Ginsburg laughing at Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on “Saturday Night Love.”

Starkly lacking, then, is any insight into what the justice makes of her recent fame and what that cult-like adoration means for feminist progress today. Nor do we learn why she’s called the epithets that make up the first words of the film: “witch,” “monster,” “evildoer.” Surely Ginsburg is far more interesting than her devotees, her enemies, or this film make her out to be.



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‘Disobedience’ Film Review: Two Rachels Don’t Make a Right in Unfocused Drama

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

A clumsily assembled film can remind us that every narrative feature is like a Jenga tower, with each block building on the foundational ones under it and faulty, minor-seeming pieces poised to upset a chunk of the whole. If it were an edifice, “Disobedience” — about repressed Sapphic desire in the Orthodox Jewish community — would stand tall but wobbly, its hollows more conspicuous than its frame.

Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, who won the 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for the transgender drama “A Fantastic Woman,” directs this spotty adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s debut novel, set in the same London suburb where the author, a former Orthodox Jew, grew up. (Lelio co-wrote the script with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who co-penned “Ida,” 2015’s Polish winner in the same Oscar category).

With Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starring as its furtive, inflamed lovers, “Disobedience” has pedigree to spare. But the result feels wonky and lopsided, as if several crucial scenes were left behind on the cutting-room floor. Other elements feel just off enough to distract from the gloomy, unsettled mood, like Weisz’s black-sheep character’s cutting critiques of Orthodox femininity and the actresses’ not-quite-crackling chemistry (which is watered down further by a, let’s say, unusual act during their extensive sex scene).

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Among other things, “A Fantastic Woman” is a study of the spaces where its protagonist felt either at ease or fiercely unwelcome. “Disobedience” is one too, as Weisz’s Ronit, the photographer daughter of a London rabbi, returns home after trading Orthodox Judaism for New York years ago. The film’s first great scene takes place in the kitchen of her deceased father’s house, where she catches up with one of the few members of the community who’ll still talk to her: her dad’s surrogate son Dovid (Alessandro Nivola, who best embodies the charged restraint that characterizes the picture’s early tone.)

Dovid is soft of voice and kind in demeanor: He invites the outcast Ronit to stay at his house almost immediately. But he’s stiffly withholding, too, especially when Ronit half-flirtily asks him who he married. Not that it matters, since all Orthodox women are clones of one another, Ronit implies, giving no indication that she thinks any differently of Dovid’s wife, the dutiful, modesty-wigged Esti (McAdams in a shaky British accent). The two women make one another bristle, so when they later hungrily kiss in Ronit’s childhood home, resuming the relationship they started as teenagers, it’s as much of a shock as it would have been to the rabbi: No one could have expected this.

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Ronit is dealt a series of blows by her family post-mortem: Her father’s obituary says he died childless, and his will reflects their extreme estrangement. An uncle blames Ronit for not nursing him through his final days, and when she says she didn’t know he was ailing, the relative indicts her for not staying by the rabbi’s side — the kind of intergenerational back-and-forth that feels familiarly unwinnable. But we learn precious little about Ronit’s relationship with her father beyond her ostracism and the ensuing disgrace, which renders her grief distant and perfunctory.

Lelio just might be more attuned to the ways that individuals are impacted by social systems than to character arcs. Ronit and Esti’s affair is discovered almost immediately by the close-knit community, and we see how all the players in their love triangle bear the costs, albeit not equally, of acquiescing to patriarchal demands.

Ronit arrived in London a mostly free woman, but her continued horror at the life she would have led — trapped in a loveless marriage, then committing suicide — makes her a persona non grata, especially among other Orthodox women. Esti was promised a “cure” for her queerness, but now realizes that the price may have been too high.

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Even Dovid suffers, his well-intentioned willingness to maintain order creating little earthquakes beneath his feet. Nivola quietly steals the picture by being impossible to look away from; Dovid presents the film’s most intense suspense, the young rabbi torn between rage and understanding, violence and decency, as he confronts unruly female behavior under his own roof.

I wish I’d been as rapt by Ronit and Esti’s romance, but enough pages feel ripped from the book about their relationship (including why Esti gives their love story the ending that she does) that I kept wondering what I was missing. What came through more distinctly than love was fear, as each character contemplates an uncertain future shaped by priorities they had never anticipated. Disobeying outside authorities can be difficult; disobeying the desires of the heart, impossible.



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‘I Feel Pretty’ Film Review: Amy Schumer Teaches a Despicable Lesson in Self-Love

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“I Feel Pretty” makes a lot of sense on paper. After becoming America’s foremost chronicler of female self-esteem issues through her Emmy- and Peabody-winning Comedy Central sketch series, Amy Schumer finally has the chance to give her tortured public persona a happy ending.

An average-looking woman (by Hollywood standards) consumed by the desire to be “undeniably pretty” bonks her head, wakes up believing she’s beautiful and learns that her anxieties about her looks kept her from fully embracing life. Confidence, not conventional beauty, was what she needed all along. Like her commitment-phobia rom-com “Trainwreck,” the project is on brand for Schumer, while softening her edges for a broad audience.

So what went so, so wrong?

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Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (first-time helmers who penned “How to Be Single,” “The Vow,” and “He’s Just Not That Into You”), “I Feel Pretty” is an honest-to-God fiasco. Virtually every single aspect of this rigidly unfunny comedy is botched, from the characters to the plot, the themes to the core message.

For a long stretch, Michelle Williams threatens to steal the picture, playing the funniest character she’s played in ages. But ultimately she, too, gets lost in the ineptitude that defines this film.

“I Feel Pretty” was clearly adapted for Schumer’s talents, a sensible move so poorly implemented that it ends up being one of the film’s greatest drawbacks. Schumer’s Renee Bennett is supposed to be an everywoman whose insecurities about her appearance are relatable, if extreme.

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She works for Lily LeClaire, an upscale makeup company headed by its namesake founder (Lauren Hutton) and her granddaughter Avery (Williams), but Renee is stuck in a basement outpost, forever looking into the Midtown headquarters from the outside. That is, until a cranial injury during SoulCycle has her convinced that she’s attractive enough to go for a receptionist position at the model-filled main office.

We’re meant to identify with Renee as the woman-next-door gaslighted into thinking she’s an ogre. But Renee is also written as a monstrous egomaniac and a painfully basic bitch, two archetypes that Schumer often plays. The script’s tone-deafness reaches a particularly low point when Renee signs up for a grubby bikini contest at a dank bar on a first date, sticks her finger into a stranger’s mouth — and her good-guy plus-one (Rory Scovel, “The House”) finds her wannabe-stripper antics charming and seductive. Self-love and body acceptance have seldom smelled so much like stale beer.

Renee’s proximity to Avery, a sheltered heiress with a chipmunk voice and a heart of gold leads to the discovery that drugstore-makeup-using Long Island native Renee might be a valuable consultant for Lily LeClaire’s upcoming Target line. Williams masterfully parodies the studied fragility of a certain class of New York women, and Schumer excels in the scenes in which she sells Renee’s self-hatred and her jubilation at being “beautiful.”

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But no other character, including Renee’s love interest and her two undifferentiated friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps), has any coherent personality at all. And Renee is so shambolically and jaggedly written that, by the time her big realization-cum-monologue arrives, all I wanted was for her to stop talking.

Occasionally, a human moment glints among the muddle. A late moment when a character points out how sad it is that Renee’s “wildest dream” is merely to be pretty is fleeting but wise. But such lines are all too rare, and ostensibly hilarious ones, like when Renee gets called “sir” by some random dude, are much more common. And the scenes where Renee, an adult woman, learns that conventionally attractive women have problems too simply feel condescending.

The movie that “I Feel Pretty” should have been deserves to be made. This version, in which a narcissist learns to love herself as is, feels far less necessary.



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‘Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero’ Film Review: Dog Loves His Doughboys in Animated WWI True Story

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

During his decade or so on earth, Stubby the terrier accomplished far more than some people (including me) will achieve in their human-length lifetimes. A Connecticut stray that became the most decorated dog in U.S. history, “Sergeant” Stubby’s exploits during World War I include locating and rescuing the wounded, capturing a German spy, and warning American and French troops about mustard gas strikes. He endured gas attacks himself, as well as grenade wounds.

For his 18 months of service, he was introduced to three presidents and given a cushy post-military gig as the mascot of the Georgetown Hoyas. Upon his death in 1926, the New York Times memorialized Sergeant Stubby with a half-page obituary, and his body was donated to the Smithsonian. To ask who’s a good boy in his presence would be an insult.

I can’t say that the world needed “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” the new animated biopic (doggopic? pupperpic?) about a wordless creature who, despite a few movie-like touches, is more animal than Pixar-ish humanoid. Cartoon Stubby moves, acts, and most importantly sounds like a real dog.

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Director and co-writer Richard Lanni (“The Americans in the Bulge”), who penned with Mike Stokey, smartly leans on naturalistic canine charm to tell a story that already feels too incredible to be true. At 75 minutes, the resulting feature is the definition of slight, but just winsome and optimistic enough to justify itself.

A young Army soldier, Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman), gives Stubby his accidental calling. A fateful encounter on the street — and the surprising leniency of Robert’s superiors — makes the stocky, diminutive canine a fixture on the base, where doughboys are being trained to fight the Germans. The human dramas range from predictable to wholly dispensable. Among Conroy’s buddies, Olsen (Jordan Beck) declares that he hates dogs and Schroeder (Jim Pharr) wants to prove that, despite his Teutonic accent, he belongs in his chosen home, not the one he left behind.

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In France, Conroy’s mentor becomes Baptiste (Gérard Depardieu), a genial Gaul who enjoys — wait for it — cheese and wine. A quasi-storyline about the gradual erosion of French prejudice against their American allies feels out of place. And the film’s narrator (Helena Bonham Carter), Conroy’s never-seen big sister and the only female “character,” feels like an element the writers shoehorned in to hit a marketing quadrant goal.

No matter. The plot hardly makes a difference, since the movie’s chief asset is its heartwarming but never Pollyanna-ish ambience. Exercising welcome restraint (especially for a children’s movie), Lanni never states the biggest lesson to be learned from Stubby’s story: That when talent, loyalty, and friendship are nurtured, there’s no telling what miracles may arise. Nothing is more dehumanizing than war, and it was crucial for soldiers in the trenches to feel a connection to their own humanity through a dog’s companionship — and wise of Conroy’s higher-ups to permit their troops the comfort that Stubby represented.

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Yes, it’s adorable when Conroy teaches Stubby how to salute, and when the dog dons a cape that the local villagers make for him as a thank-you gift for warning them about impending mustard gas. (The chemical weapon — rendered as a genuinely creepy neon-green smoke that Maleficent might swirl herself around in — is a standout image among otherwise unremarkable CG animation).

We never forget that this is war, and a loss late in the film is accordingly moving. Through it all runs Stubby, blissfully ignorant of human cruelty and unwaveringly stalwart in protecting those he loves.



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‘Chappaquiddick’ Film Review: Ted Kennedy’s Downfall Makes for Searing Drama

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

From “Veep” to “Scandal,” “Wag the Dog” to “Our Brand is Crisis,” Hollywood has no shortage of cautionary tales about media manipulation by politicians. It’s tempting to see the plague of fake news and the ham-fisted attempts at Orwellian indoctrination — on Fox News, Sinclair stations and YouTube conspiracy-theory videos — as a malaise that afflicts them, seldom us.

“Chappaquiddick,” about the 1969 car accident that left campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne dead and felled the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations, serves as a timely reminder that voters on either side of the aisle are susceptible to influence, especially when it’s wrapped up in male entitlement and oligarchical polish.

By the time he died in office in 2009, Kennedy was the fourth longest-serving senator in U.S. history, with the “Chappaquiddick Incident” far behind him.

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Directed by Australian John Curran (“The Painted Veil”), the somber, quietly damning “Chappaquiddick” tells a middle-of-the-road version of the events, firmly between tabloid speculation and dynasty-protecting heroics. Here, Jason Clarke’s 37-year-old Ted isn’t philandering, though possibly drunk, when, in a moment of ill-fated recklessness, he flips his Oldsmobile into a pond, with a sober Mary (Kate Mara) in the passenger seat. He makes it to shore; she doesn’t. He should call the police; he doesn’t.

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The real-life Kopechne’s official cause of death was drowning, but “Chappaquiddick” considers an alternate, more horrifying theory that’s become part of the incident’s lore: That she slowly asphyxiated to death in the car over several hours (during which she could have been rescued), her head above water until oxygen ran out. Later, Ted imagines the serious, idealistic Mary’s final moments, waiting for help that would never arrive.

First-time screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan manage to give Mary a distinct personality and biography in Mara’s 15-ish minutes on screen, so that she’s not reduced to an albatross around Ted’s neck, but rather blooms into someone whose death we feel as a loss. But, of course, this is Ted’s story. The accident becomes a crossroads where he is to decide who he should become: His father’s sole surviving son (after the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, and the death of Joseph Jr. in battle during World War II) and thus the old man’s final shot at seeing one of his children in the White House again, or someone who’s going to do the right thing.

From the start, opportunity has a head start on integrity. When Ted’s two closest advisers — his cousin, Joe (Ed Helms), and a more distant confidant, Paul (Jim Gaffigan) — ask him just after the accident what’s wrong, the senator sighs, “I’m not going to be president.”

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As in that scene, “Chappaquiddick” is most powerful when it comes to the words that aren’t spoken. Ted doesn’t notify local officials of the accident, so the upturned car, with Mary inside it, is discovered by the townspeople the next morning. With the “Kennedy curse” heavy on everyone’s mind — as if Mary’s death was yet another thing that happened to the family — Ted is counseled to call his mother immediately (“Don’t let her find out about another tragedy through the news”), but it’s not until some time after that anyone thinks of Mary’s family. Nor does Ted think to call his pregnant wife during the worst crisis of his career.

The script is stuffed with portentous, dual-meaning lines like, “We will persevere, because that’s what Kennedys do,” that become eyeroll-inducing as they pile up. But the knee-jerk acquiescence to the POTUS ambitions of both Ted and especially Joe Sr. (a wheezing, wheelchaired Bruce Dern in a Darth Vader-esque turn) is rivetingly revolting nonetheless. You’ll never hear the word “alibi” the same again.

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Ted’s daddy issues are laid on a bit too thick, especially when he self-pityingly whines that he was always the least-favorite son of his stroke-stricken father. (“Chappaquiddick” is the rare unsubtle, yet highly suggestive, film.) But Ted’s burden to live up to the ideals his brother Jack represented to the country rings true, even if he and Joseph Sr.’s nine-man pack of waxen consultants admit to each other that the Bay of Pigs was a disaster.

Even more revealing are the film’s observations about the bubble of privilege that Ted occupied, as predetermined as his preppy pastel wardrobe. He’s referred to as “Senator” even at the beach, and a single call to his father or a lackey means a covert fudging of documents. Ted’s certainly not a sociopath, but self-protective deception is his natural instinct. As he tries on a fake neck brace for Mary’s funeral, he has to be reminded by his increasingly disturbed cousin, “You’re not a victim, Ted.” Donning prosthetic teeth, Clarke nails his character’s aura of genteel self-absorption, as well as the Kennedys’ flat, nasal brogue.

After a compelling first hour, the actual clean-up scenes are anticlimactic. But the ending hits hard, with a coda consisting of archival footage of Massachusetts citizens expressing their faith in Ted Kennedy and parroting more or less what the Democratic machine wanted voters to believe. “Chappaquiddick” may or may not be what actually happened, but it gets at enough piercing truths.



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‘First Match’ Film Review: Netflix’s Female-Wrestler Drama Needs Breathing Room

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

The premise of “First Match,” lamentably, is an all-too-believable one. Fifteen-year-old Monique (Elvire Emanuelle), a foster kid in ungentrified Brooklyn, makes impulsive mistake after impulsive mistake until she ends up getting beaten up and bloody for money.

When we meet her, she’s in the process of being kicked out of her latest home for sleeping with her foster dad. Craving the approval of her own father, the just-paroled Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “The Get Down”), Monique joins the wrestling team in a bid for his affection. Seeing his own athletic potential flickering in his daughter, Darrel decides to cash in on her talent by pushing her into underground fighting, where he can bet on her in the way that comes most naturally to him.

Written and directed by first-timer Olivia Newman, this Netflix coming-of-age melodrama is dogged by a faint but lingering whiff of poverty porn. The film also has much to praise about it: a fantastic lead performance by Emanuelle, gleamingly naturalistic cinematography (by Ashley Connor, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”), and smart insights into the tolls of instability, especially for teenage girls and young women.

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Monique is eagle-eyed, too, which makes the acidity of her frequent outbursts that much more caustic when they’re aimed at her sole pal Omari (Jharrel Jerome, “Moonlight”), a second foster mother (Kim Ramirez), and others trying their best to help her.

According to the press notes, “First Match” was born from Newman’s observations of girl wrestlers in the NYC area, whose numbers are on the rise, though not so much that they get to compete one another. Monique is the only girl on her team, and all her opponents are boys. As much as it’s a drag watching female characters get mistreated in the movies, the relatively easy acceptance that she finds from her teammates strains credulity.

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Monique’s sticky-sweet friendship with Omari doesn’t quite scan, either. But her tense, flirty bond with another player, Malik (Jared Kemp, “Luke Cage”), rings abundantly true. Monique starts a fight with his girlfriend over nothing early in the movie, but his desire to take his team to the state championships — and more importantly, to get a college scholarship based on his wrestling prowess — pushes Malik toward making Monique feel wanted, in multiple senses.  

The various layers of Mo’s relationship with her slippery father are peeled expertly, too. Even in his lowest, most opportunistic moments, his motivations are understandable, if far from noble. Darrel simply doesn’t comprehend his daughter’s idolization of and need for connection with him. Monique doesn’t hide them — certainly not her desire to have her dad adopt her and become her legal guardian — but she does allow the gale-like force of her wants to shove her into dangerous situations. You can almost see the inferno behind her eyes burn down logic and common sense as her emotions overtake her. She’s a teenager, after all.

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Newman doesn’t give the film much room to breathe, or to develop Monique as a person beyond her dysfunctions and the solutions thereof (an after-school activity, parental love). The film’s connect-the-dots approach to storytelling leaves it gasping for slice-of-life details. After her first day on the mats, we see Monique pulling out her blazing red extensions and clipping her once lime-green nails. Despite the many close-ups of Emanuelle’s face, we’re too often denied access to her character’s thoughts and feelings, as Monique changes up her entire look, identity, lifestyle, and social circles to become what she believes her father wants her to be.

Mo’s story feels rare, relevant, and real. But we’re stuck on the outside looking in.



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‘Paul, Apostle of Christ’ Film Review: Passive Piety Stifles Biblical Drama

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

It’s difficult to make compelling cinema out of saintliness. That’s why so many Biblical biopics from the contemporary Christian-movie industry land with a thunk. Faith-based films are often literal hagiographies, and it’s boring to watch one-dimensional piety stay static over two hours. As the Old Testament attests, even angels cut loose sometimes: An entire third of those winged servants rebelled against God to become demons.

The apostle Paul’s story is one of extremes, from his origins as a fearsome persecutor of Christians to a miracle-induced 180-degree turn that transformed him into an influential leader of the people he once tortured and killed. Unfortunately, very little of what makes his biography so riveting translates to the screen in “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” (So named, I guess, to differentiate him from the Seth Rogen-voiced extraterrestrial who flees Area 51 and befriends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.)

Played by a commanding James Faulkner (“Da Vinci’s Demons”), this version of the apostle is a willingly passive icon, a prisoner of the Roman state who inspires his fellow Christians with his self-sacrifice but whose unwavering sermons some see as increasingly out-of-touch. Writer-director Paul Hyatt (“Full of Grace,” “The Last Light”) follows the current trend in mainstream studio biopics of tightly focusing on a single episode in a subject’s life.

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Simply put, Paul’s final weeks in lockup don’t make for the most compelling angle through which to explore his life, but the setting of 67 CE Rome does initially offer an engaging snapshot of the fledgling church. Ultimately, the overstuffed, under-dramatized film fails to fully develop the stakes at hand, but it features more thoughtful world-building than most faith-based films, as well as a bracing honesty about the difficulty of reconciling idealistic credos with a harsh and unforgiving world.

In the year 67, the Christians of Rome are damned if they stay and damned if they leave. Under Emperor Nero (never seen), Christians are condemned to public burnings in the streets and lion maulings in Rome’s “circuses.” Paul has been accused of various acts of arson around the capital, fires for which many believe Nero himself is responsible. (We don’t see any of the latter, but that doesn’t impede the film’s occasional flirtations with garishness in its portrayal of early Christian martyrdom. At one point, a spurt of blood after a violent encounter hits the ground in pornographic slo-mo.)

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Some Christians want to flee, others to remain, and a very few to pay back Nero’s violence with blood. Luke (Jim Caviezel), a respected physician, sneaks into Paul’s cell to write down for Christian posterity the apostle’s last words.

Paul suffers guilt-drenched nightmares, but neither he nor Luke is truly involving. The film’s most interesting character, it turns out, is its most prominent non-Christian: the Roman prefect Mauritius (a notable Olivier Martinez), whose only child is ailing on her deathbed. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Luke cures Mauritius’ young daughter. But the reluctant oppressor doesn’t want to admit a lowly Christian into his home and risk ostracization.

A violent veteran who has dedicated his life to enforcing Rome’s hierarchies, Mauritius also knows that the social order can be deeply unjust, especially under capricious rulers like Nero, and thus fears that that that discrimination can be used against him, too. Antonia Campbell-Hughes (“Bright Star”), playing Mauritius’ desperate wife, rounds out the unexpectedly great trio of performances.

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Mauritius is constantly baffled by the Christians, particularly by Paul’s insistence that the marginalized religious group’s earthly status has no bearing on their spiritual standing. In the Roman’s view, a powerful god would make his followers powerful, too. (Some of the disgruntled Christians find their faith tested, too, by God’s seeming forsaking of his believers.) The cultural clashes between Paul and Mauritius feel refreshingly human — and far more politically pointed in these prosperity-gospel times — than the apostle’s otherwise mushy “love conquers all” teachings.

In a couple of scenes, light pours into the eyes and mouth of a grand gilded mask of a Roman deity’s visage. That visual flourish is easily the film’s most striking — and a conspicuous contrast to the rushed and cheesy rendition of Paul’s miraculous blinding on the road to Damascus, where the Lord converted the Christian tormentor into a believer. A few other New Testament details, like Paul’s married followers, Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) and Aquilla (John Lynch), feel equally shoehorned in.

Naturally, no sticking points about Paul’s legacy, like his (disputed) rejection of female church leaders, make it into Hyatt’s script. “Paul, Apostle of Christ” only makes a case for the disciple’s ascent to Heaven, not the complications or historical context that make him such a figure of fascination for millennia.



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‘Thoroughbreds’ Film Review: Preppie Girls Go Homicidal in Taut, Toxic Comedy

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s compellingly incongruent face is the best effect in the new thriller “Thoroughbreds.” Best known for playing the Puritan teen accused of practicing dark magic in the 2015 arthouse horror hit “The Witch,” the British actress has the eyes of a prim toddler and a full, sensual mouth somehow made up of sharp angles. Those mercurial features comprise a microcosm of writer-director Cory Finley’s debut: a cold, twisty mystery that keeps delivering surprises.

Imagine if the creepy twins from “The Shining” were separated at birth, adopted by upper-crust Connecticut families, became friends in school, had a falling out, were reunited by an SAT tutoring sesh, and decided to kill one of their stepdads instead. Unlike in ninth grade, the two girls aren’t exactly pals this time around — it’s hard to definitively say they even like one another — but they are allies and confidantes.

A long, close hug they share at the film’s start encapsulates their relationship: Lily (Taylor-Joy) in grudging discomfort; Amanda (Olivia Cooke, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), recently diagnosed as an emotionless sociopath, with eyes deader than disco.

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On break from boarding school, Lily agrees to tutor town pariah Amanda, an object of intense, horse-related gossip. In her crisp, office-ready blouses and with her preternaturally neutral demeanor toward her dickish stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), Lily appears the very picture of the young American oligarchy learning how to settle into their perch atop society. But when Amanda suggests they kill Mark — or better yet, have him killed, while they enjoy an airtight alibi — Lily agrees in less time than it’d take a J. Crew order to arrive at her door.

It turns out good help is hard to find. In his last performance, Anton Yelchin plays a drug dealer with grandiose dreams and exclusively underage customers. Yelchin’s Tim is the most believable figure in this otherwise stylized drama, a pathetic, delusional lowlife who still deserves better than what’s coming to him.

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The girls’ attempt to blackmail him into killing Mark is the first time we truly understand that they’re much more terrifying than we’d thought. It’s not insignificant that Tim’s family belongs to a much more modest income bracket than Lily’s or Amanda’s. But Finley declines to push the class angle here, which endows “Thoroughbreds” with a disappointing weightlessness.

Most of the action takes place in the mansion that Lily and Mark share with her widowed mother (Kaili Vernoff), and the patronizing, casually contemptuous way that Mark talks to his wife is genuinely gutting. But, intriguingly, Mark never says anything overtly abusive — a lack that contributes as much to the tension as the plunky, percussive, quasi-experimental soundtrack (by Erik Friedlander, “Oh Lucy!”) and the protracted, unsettling stares that Finley gets out of Taylor-Joy and Cooke. Needless to say, both actresses are fantastically affectless while suggesting a simmering wrath or a malign curiosity under the placidity.

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Even with its measured pace and sparse plot, the film’s indulgence in stillness is one of the best things about it. An early scene in which Amanda eats cereal at her desk, looking blankly at the computer screen, is both alarmingly disquieting and profoundly relatable. (Is there anything more adolescent than killing time and being unhappy without having any idea what to do about it?)

As “Thoroughbreds” slithers toward its fitting yet convenient ending, it feels increasingly like we’re missing a key scene or two about Lily, especially when Mark gives her the talking-to she’s clearly been dreading. But if you don’t mind your movies nasty, brutish, and slight, you couldn’t ask for a more delectable chocolate-covered razor blade.



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‘Oh Lucy!’ Film Review: Japanese Woman’s Coming-of-Middle-Age Makes Fascinating Character Study

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

There’s plenty to mourn about the plunge in middlebrow, mid-budget features, but the decline of the midlife-crisis movie isn’t one of them. Arguably no other genre is as schmaltzy, banal, out-of-touch, and straight-white male-centric as studio filmmaking’s version of hitting 40 and realizing that your well-paying job, magazine-spread-ready life, and flawlessly bleached and Botoxed wife are no longer enough for you.

But there’s inherent conflict and complexity in the crushing realization that, at an age when you feel like you should have the major pillars of your life squared away, you find all that surrounds you intolerable and meaningless. The trans-Pacific drama “Oh Lucy!” proves that a shift in perspective — from a generic white dude to a spiky Japanese woman — can go a long way in restoring interest and intrigue to a genre that’s long been watered down by its writers and directors.

Slight but tremendously thoughtful, “Oh Lucy!” is a character study of a lonesome office worker contending with the pressures of being a single older woman, especially in a country where isolation and suicide are normalized. Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s debut begins somewhat shakily, with 40-ish Setsuko (an excellent Shinobu Terajima) witnessing a man jumping in front of a train, an older woman at work retiring, and the office worker talked into a year’s worth of English lessons by her suspiciously insistent niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna).

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Though she has a desk and a computer of her own, the only work we ever see Setsuko performing is serving drinks to her male bosses, who don’t seem to be any older than she is. Terrified of becoming the next crone her young female colleagues mock behind her back, she’s primed to fall in love with the next man who sends an ounce of attention her way.

That happens to be her American English teacher, John (Josh Harnett), an eccentric looker who immediately renames Setsuko “Lucy,” puts a curly blond wig on her head, and showers her with long, tight hugs. The first sign that there’s something a little off about John is that his lessons take place in a neon-lit brothel. By the time he pops an orange ping pong ball in her mouth without warning to help her “relax,” we know he’s definitely a weirdo; the question is what kind. Setsuko soon clutches John even longer than he to her. But none are as clingy as Setsuko’s classmate, a widower christened “Tom” (Kōji Yakusho, “Shall We Dance?”).

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Then sudden disappointment: John, secretly dating Mika, returns to Los Angeles with his new girlfriend in tow. Worried about her niece (and literally pursuing John), Setsuko departs for California with her difficult and exacting sister, Mika’s mother Ayako (a scene-stealing Kaho Minami, who adds masterful shades of shrewdness and spite to a largely thankless role).

What follows are a series of strikingly detailed one-on-one scenes between Setsuko and Ayako, John, and later Mika that build to a compelling inevitability. You can feel the years on the weary mutual resentment between the mismatched siblings. But initially, at least, the freedom from her life that Setsuko finds in L.A. allows her to enjoy the trip as an adventure. That’s the case even when John reveals himself as a smooth liar, his backbone as flexible as his resolve. Harnett is fantastic as a slippery jerk who hasn’t yet realized he’s a much worse person than he thinks.

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But the real standout character is of course Setsuko, who very humanly zigzags between over-generosity (when she wants to indulge a loved one) and barbed cruelty (when she fears being made into a laughingstock, especially by a 20-something woman). Writer-director Hirayanagi runs into a few minor pacing miscalculations, but “Oh Lucy!”, based on her 2014 short of the same name, is a tense, observant, and heartfelt accomplishment.

That is to say: I dearly hope Hollywood spares it from its remake machine.



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‘Samson’ Movie Review: Old Testament Tale Collapses Like a Philistine Temple

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If you take the Old Testament literally, strongman Samson has a body count of at least 4040 men (and one lion) to his name. His biography — full of sex, lies, and disastrous haircuts — is a grisly one. Gouged eyes, mutilated animals, and satisfaction in mass murder distinguish the story of Samson, even in the section of the Bible where readers are encouraged to delight in the deaths of the Israelites’ enemies. The Book of Judges, in which Samson appears, could be read as “Game of Thrones” for ancient Jews.

Even during my Sunday school years, Samson struck me as a horny dolt, a cautionary tale of what can happen if you disobey God (or, I guess, trust women). Clearly not everyone agrees with my interpretation. Christian studio Pure Flix’s “Samson,” which opens the same day as Marvel’s “Black Panther,” recasts its titular muscle man as a superhero awaiting his “with great power comes great responsibility” moment.

The result is pure dissonance. I’ll first note that the film is just plain bad, with an amateur cast (led by Taylor James), cut-rate special effects, who-cares storylines, and confusing details shoehorned in from the Bible. Why do we briefly glimpse a cave full of foxes? I discovered the reason in Wikipedia, because director Bruce Macdonald, who previously helmed the faith-based surfing drama “The Perfect Wave,” never lets on.

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The small tribe of writers behind the screenplay — Jason Baumgardner, Galen Gilbert, Timothy Ratajczak, and Zach Smith — do a reasonable-enough job of transforming a handful of Old Testament chapters into an epic drama that takes us from Samson’s reluctance to do violence against the oppressive Philistines on behalf of his people to his ultimate capture and redemption. (Do I need a spoiler alert for a 2500-year-old text?)

Billy Zane slums it as the Philistine king (his death scene is too short and unintentionally hilarious), while Frances Sholto-Douglas and Caitlin Leahy co-star as Samson’s first wife and femme fatale Delilah, respectively. A sadistic Philistine prince (the hammy-as-hell Jackson Rathbone from the “Twilight” movies) tasked to collect harvests from the starving Israelites keeps goading Samson into fights, and our dimpled himbo keeps falling for them.

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But the movie’s most interesting clashes aren’t between Samson and the Philistine royals, but between Pure Flix’s intent to create “clean” entertainment and the obvious bloodthirstiness of the source material. Macdonald wants the piles of corpses (Samson’s ability to do violence is meant to be a sign of his sanctity), but without the strikes or gore. The ensuing PG-13 fight choreography is about as bloodless as a children’s tae kwon do class. The only battle moment that grabbed me was when James ripped off his already torn shirt to reveal his hairless, glistening chest.

Most disappointingly, the (theoretically) crazy badass scene in which Samson faces off against a lion lasts for all of five seconds. Those YouTube compilation videos of household cats swatting things off tables boast more aggression.  

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I watched “Samson” on Thursday night, the day after the Parkland school shooting. I did wonder if Pure Flix was on to something by shielding viewers from the kinds of gruesome hits and sword thrusts that we’ve come to expect from mainstream entertainment. But in the same way that depiction isn’t always endorsement, a refusal of depiction isn’t always discouragement.

In framing his final act of violence as righteous vengeance, “Samson” doesn’t renounce brutality, it glorifies it. Worse, the film’s holier-than-thou approach prevents viewers from fully grappling with the consequences of the violence it champions. Instead of offering viewers an alternative cinema, “Samson” just gives us the worst of both worlds.



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All 7 Aardman Animations Features Ranked, From ‘Wallace & Gromit’ to ‘Chicken Run’ (Photos)

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In the same way that we look to France for fashion and Japan for electronics, we look to England for coziness. That’s at least in part due to Bristol-based Aardman Animations, the 46-year-old studio best known for its “Wallace & Gromit” franchise. With Aardman’s latest release “Early Man” hitting theaters, let’s revisit the studio’s feature-length output, from worst to best, to explore what make its films so special.

7. “Early Man” (2018)

“Early Man” is the closest Aardman has come to making a “bad” movie. This romp about the origins of soccer at the dawn of the Bronze Age is hardly shoddy, but there’s a definite whiff of second-rateness in the film’s predictable plotting, lazy puns, and ceaseless slapstick. Aardman’s lesser works can rightly be accused of weightlessness, and “Early Man” fits the bill: A week after my screening, I forgot I saw it.

6. “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (2015)

Based on the popular “Wallace & Gromit” spin-off series, the imaginatively titled “Shaun the Sheep Movie” feels similarly inconsequential story-wise to “Early Man,” but miles ahead in terms of ambition. The premise of a bored farm animal running away to experience the excitement of the big city is practically a children’s movie cliché, but this charming effort deserves respect for its wordless script and daring humility. For illustrating that cartoons for the masses need not involve endless mugging and patience-testing obnoxiousness, Aardman received its third Best Animated Feature nomination.

5. “Flushed Away” (2006)

DreamWorks sends Aardman’s soul to The Sunken Place in this collaboration between the two studios. Set in the sewers (where we’re treated to the sight of a half-wrapped chocolate bar that looks like an all-too-realistic-looking poo), “Flushed Away” revels in, well, toilet humor. And yet, I’d still rank this all-CG picture this high: Its story of a posh pet rat who doesn’t realize how lonely he is until he’s been banished to rodent-infested sewers is surprisingly fresh and resonant.

4. “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005)

Welcome to the splitting-hairs phase of this ranking. The remaining four Aardman features are all superlative, so it’s only after much quibbling and parsing that the “Wallace & Gromit” movie, which boasts the studio’s sole Oscar win for Best Animated Feature, lands on this list at number four. Aardman’s famous claymation has never looked better — the entire picture is invitingly tactile — and “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” showcases the studio’s secret weapon: Its willingness to go dark, even a little dirty. But one nitpick persists — the story of a dotty inventor who accidentally turns himself into a monster and the canine sidekick who has to clean up all his messes, no matter how delightfully executed, is still a bit familiar.

3. “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (2012)

Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria, and a floundering buccaneer who goes by “Pirate Captain” tussle over the world’s only dodo in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.” After “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” this stop-motion-CG hybrid is the best showcase of Aardman’s brilliantly textural animation style. Just as winsome is the wholly original plot, based on the initial outing of Gideon Defoe’s “The Pirates!” book series, which sends up pirate tropes while offering a modern revision of the British empire.

2. “Arthur Christmas” (2011)

How is “Arthur Christmas” not a bigger deal? The only Aardman feature directed by a female filmmaker (Sarah Smith) is a forgotten masterpiece with a completely new take on the Santa story. Set against technological changes in the dynastic gift-distribution business, “Arthur Christmas” achieves that seemingly impossible balance between Yuletide sentimentality and pointed satire.

1. “Chicken Run” (2000)

What other film could top a list of Aardman’s achievements? The studio’s debut feature is still its best, a silly but scary “Handmaid’s Tale”-evoking fable about hens forced to lay (eggs) or die. The chickens imagine a new future — a farmer-less utopia — but first, they have to escape their pen. Aardman’s magnum opus is many fine things, not least a cozy, endearing, and sometimes truly ominous rebuke of the American flash that the studio itself has rejected to animation triumph.

‘La Boda de Valentina’ Film Review: Mexican Rom-Com Political Satire Nearly Hits Its Marks

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You can blame Trump, at least in part, for the fact that “La Boda de Valentina” (“Valentina’s Wedding”) is a better political satire than it is a romantic comedy.

Set mostly in Mexico City, this bilingual rom-com, about an engaged woman married off on paper to another man for the optics by her politically ambitious family, largely succeeds as a broad sendup of the faux-populism and moral hypocrisy of politics, Mexico-style. I breathed easy not because the central couple finally found love and completeness, but because it was so refreshing to enjoy political satire again without that POTUS-induced tinge of existential despair.

That the central character, played by Marimar Vega, is named “Valentina” tells you pretty much all you need to know about how much thought director Marco Polo Constandse (“Cásese quien pueda”) and writers Santiago Limón and Issa López put into the romance plot. We never get a strong sense of why Valentina, who works at a philanthropic foundation in Boston, says yes when her gringo boyfriend Jason (Ryan Carnes, “General Hospital”) proposes.

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The son of a wealthy tech magnate (Kate Vernon, “Battlestar Galactica”), the blond lunk seems unfazed when his fiancée insists that her family shouldn’t come to their wedding, nor will he meet Valentina’s parents before the big day. When he drops off his beloved at the airport — she needs to take care of something in Mexico before the wedding, she says — Jason warns her not to get kidnapped or beheaded. Cool guy.

Vega has no chemistry with Carnes, and pretty much all the English-language scenes suffer from a stiltedness that underscores the artificialities of the script’s convolutions. But once Valentina lands in Mexico and reunites with her “Arrested Development”-style clan of wealthy, dysfunctional, clueless, and highly corruptible screw-ups, “La Boda de Valentina” finds its groove in satisfying caricature.

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We meet Valentina’s lecherous grandfather (Álvaro Carcaño, “Deep Crimson”), her luxuriously imprisoned aunt (Mexican screen legend María Rojo), her former-beauty-queen stepmother (Sabine Moussier), and her hot-headed, drunk-driving half-brother (Jesús Zavala, “Club of Crows”). Buckling under the pressure to bring glory to the Hidalgo family, Valentina’s rubber-spined father (Christian Tappán), running to be mayor of Mexico City, marries his out-of-the-country daughter to an old flame, Angel (Omar Chaparro, “How to Be a Latin Lover”), to hide the family fortune in his son-in-law’s name during the campaign.

(That seems much more complicated than opening up an account in the Caymans, but to think about any of the movie’s logistics for more than a second would be to throw a bucket of water on an intricate hairdo.)

Vega and Chaparro are instantly warm and funny and spiky together, and the film’s primary flaw is not giving this inevitable couple the time they need for us to fall in love with them. Instead, most of the hijinks involve Jason’s inexorable surprise visit to Mexico City, where Valentina’s past and present men enjoy a bro tour around the city: tequila, lucha libre and, um, electrocuting themselves in a contest of manly endurance.

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The friendship that develops between the two hombres is an interesting departure from the usual antagonism between suitors, but that’s also time that we could have spent learning, well, anything about Valentina, other than that she’s perfect and misses Mexico more than she’d realized.

Unfortunately, the satire does get mushy as Valentina “fixes” her family and they become more sympathetic. The film is sharp when mocking the circus-like symbiosis between politics and the media, but doesn’t quite know how to circle the square of identifying with a heroine benefitting from the inequality that her family helps perpetuate, leading to a maudlin speech to Jason about how he’ll never understand the hardships of being the progeny of a filthy rich and terribly recognizable family (even though that’s pretty much his whole deal, too).

Part incomplete rom com, part squishy lampoon, “La Boda de Valentina” ultimately falls short in both modes, but accomplishes just enough to warrant a RSVP.



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‘A Fantastic Woman’ Film Review: Chile’s Oscar Entry Tells Powerful Trans Tale

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Who gets to grieve? At the core of that question is who we consider fellow human beings, and who we think of as less than. The transphobia in “A Fantastic Woman,” Chile’s worthy nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, takes the form of denying sorrow to a trans woman, because the relatives of her deceased older boyfriend are incapable of believing that she could love or be loved.

In their few scenes together, pretty much the only thing we see between Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando’s (Francisco Reyes) is their gentle but lusty affection for each other. Marina’s dehumanization — by doctors and police officers in addition to Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and grown son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) — is gradually followed by her reclamation of her dignity. It’s a toe-tingling triumph.

Before being cast as Marina, Vega served as director Sebastián Lelio’s consultant on transgender issues for the script. “A Fantastic Woman” is only Vega’s second time in front of the camera, but she’s a natural screen presence, exuding warmth, caution, and determination. Lelio, who previously helmed “Gloria” and “The Year of the Tiger,” co-wrote the screenplay with Gonzalo Maza and later customized it to showcase his leading lady’s talents, like her opera background. Vega’s spellbinding musical performances bookend the film, and her masterful rendition exemplifies the argument for why trans characters should be played by trans performers.

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In the days after Orlando’s death, Marina is stoic, or perhaps simply in shock. The drama’s first half is a compassionate if somewhat clinical study of how stereotypes, especially in accretion, can wear a person down. A doctor suspects Marina of battering Orlando; in a twist, a police officer won’t take her word that she was never Orlando’s victim.

Orlando’s brother (Luis Gnecco) understands Marina’s important role in her lover’s life. But the dead man’s immediate family members quickly come after his car, the apartment that the couple shared, even the dog that Orlando gifted Marina. A conversation in a parking garage between Marina and Sonia (who won’t allow the trans woman into her home, or even above ground) grows increasingly heartbreaking as Orlando’s ex-wife sheds her layers of courtesy and decency, ultimately reducing Marina to a “complication” and a “perversion.”

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The more Marina accommodates, the more Orlando’s relatives take. Marina’s patience isn’t superhuman — we regularly see her punching a boxing target at the end of a long day — but, in a canny move, Lelio largely hides his protagonist’s frustration from us so we’ll grow indignant on her behalf.

Eventually, Marina begins to assert herself and her right to grieve in the film’s more dynamic, fleshed-out latter half. While tracking down the locations of the wake and the funeral (from which she’s been barred by Sonia), Marina searches for the site of a locker that holds “evidence” that her boyfriend truly loved her. Her earlier compromises give way to a raw outrage and poignant touches of surrealism that underscore the unreal circumstances of her loss. Marina continues to see Orlando wherever she turns, and performs for his apparition a spangle-filled dance sequence in the club where she seeks a night’s escape from her melancholy.

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But the best surprise in “A Fantastic Woman” might be how lived-in Marina’s existence feels despite the tenuousness of her housing, her romantic fulfillment, and her legal rights. (One of the film’s most wrenching moments is a medical examination that an ostensibly sympathetic cop blackmails Marina into.) The rosiest her relationship with Orlando is presumed to be by outsiders is a “Pretty Woman” scenario, but Marina enjoys friendships, ambitions, and skills they can’t possibly imagine for her.

It should be obvious to all by now, but “A Fantastic Woman” declares it with empathy and resonance: No woman is merely a scandal.



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’12 Strong’ Film Review: Chris Hemsworth Leads the Charge in a Powerful Afghanistan Story

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Now in its 17th year, the war in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. The new military drama “12 Strong,” whose primary visual draw is U.S. troops on horseback shooting at the Taliban with machine guns, understands the reasons for that intractability.

Helmed by Danish commercial director Nicolai Fuglsig, the Chris Hemsworth vehicle is is often hammy, but also wryly funny, breath-stoppingly tense, and uncommonly intelligent. Its January dump is a disservice to a promising debut feature.

In almost any other situation, it would be inconceivable to think of the U.S. armed forces — the most formidable military in the history of the world — as an underdog. But “12 Strong” takes place in Afghanistan, where rocks, ammo, and complications are in unlimited supply. More specifically, the film chronicles the first troops to enter Afghanistan, about a month after 9/11. Army captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) has at his command 11 soldiers and a plane that can bomb enemy combatants from 30,000 feet. But on the ground, he and his team are technologically outmatched.

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Nelson gets the movie treatment: He has a model-beautiful wife (played by Hemsworth’s model wife, Elsa Pataky), hair that remains moussed after weeks in the desert, and eyelashes so long they apparently adequately screen the lower two-thirds of his face from the sun. He promises to return home with all his men alive and to complete a never-been-done mission in three weeks, not the six allotted by his superiors — and we’re meant to take him at his word.

His second in command, Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), lives on Planet Earth. The day before he deploys to Afghanistan, his angry wife (Allison King, “Thank You for Your Service”) tells him, “I’ll love you when you get back.” His discomfort on the horses the American soldiers need to ride to reach Taliban outposts leads to a slipped spinal disc. The warlord that the U.S. military needs to court, Rashid Dostum (cast standout Navid Negahban, “Homeland”), almost immediately remarks on Spencer’s “killer eyes.”

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It takes a careful balancing act to convincingly fuse blockbuster feel-good-ism and insightful realism. Thanks to screenwriters Ted Tally (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Peter Craig (co-writer of the final two “Hunger Games” sequels), “12 Strong” offers both cornpone patriotism and vexed skepticism, as well as a genuine sense of camaraderie among the Army soldiers. Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) and the always welcome Michael Peña, who play members of Nelson’s team, leaven the few moments of respite from the near-constant suspense.

Taking a backseat to untrustworthy allies and figuring out the coordinates for aerial bombardment as the main mission tasks, Nelson’s team fight a new kind of war. That making-it-up-as-they-go-along quality adds to the film’s unexpected freshness, especially as the eager guinea pigs eventually head into battle on horses, with the Taliban’s tanks charging at them as enemy rocket launchers whoosh above their heads.

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Such scenes of steroided Americana are grounded by the film’s best asset: an acknowledgement that, while this particular mission to capture a Taliban stronghold may succeed, Afghanistan is too Gordian a knot for outsiders to understand, let alone solve. (That’s why it’s the “graveyard of empires,” tuts Dostum.)

The mental chess game between the intellectual Nelson and the pragmatic Dostum, especially as the Afghan leader tests the Army captain’s willingness to learn, is fascinating to watch. It’s not that the Afghans are inscrutably foreign; they just have their own histories of rivalries and hostilities that few Americans have the curiosity to learn.

That Nelson and his soldiers are absent from the final confrontation with the Taliban leader that they’ve been pursuing feels surprisingly satisfying. It hints at the convolutions — and bloodshed — to come.



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‘Proud Mary’ Film Review: Taraji P. Henson Shoulda Kept Her Good Job in the City

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The action-drama “Proud Mary” exists mostly for its climactic fight sequence, in which Taraji P. Henson’s avenging assassin shoots a bunch of bad guys and occasionally crushes them with her Maserati while a sped-up Tina Turner wails, “We’re rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.”

It doesn’t really work, not least because the showdown takes place in a rundown warehouse district in Boston, not on a boat. At least the discordance is fun; you can feel the filmmakers reaching for something new, even if the sequence’s ultimate ineffectiveness is so instinctive you can feel it in your bones. Unfortunately, any attempt at freshness is quarantined to those couple of minutes.

“Proud Mary” did not screen for critics, nor should it have. It’s a copy of a copy of a mediocre original, with the drab aesthetics of a TV movie and the emotional hollowness of an infomercial. Ostensibly about a hired killer (the Halloween wigs and running-in-stilettos kind) who decides to reclaim her femininity, the picture is sunk by its all-male writing and directing team’s narrow conception of womanhood as lipstick and maternal instincts. (“London Has Fallen” helmer Babak Najafi directs; the screenplay is credited to Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman, and Christian Swegal.) Being a mercenary has never looked so cheesy.

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We’re rarely allowed inside Mary’s head, so every major decision — like the one to leave her adoptive crime family — is a head-scratching surprise. The POV character is preteen Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, “Feed the Beast”), a black orphan who delivers drugs for an Eastern European gangster named Uncle (Xander Berkeley).

Mary executed Danny’s father a year ago, so she guiltily keeps tabs on the little boy like any decent person who makes her living murdering people would. When Danny ends up on the streets after falling out of his boss’s favor, she brings the child to her home, bumps off Uncle, and inadvertently starts a gang war.

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Henson and Winston do share a few moments of mutual cautious vulnerability, which gives the lead-up to the inevitable revelation that Mary orphaned him some desperately needed frisson. But Mary is mostly occupied carrying out the orders of her employer/surrogate father Benny (a stilted Danny Glover) and his smitten stepson Tom (Billy Brown, “How to Get Away with Murder”) while figuring out how to quit the slaying biz.

Far from the Blaxploi-liciousness promised by the marketing, “Proud Mary” is ponderously melodramatic when not mind-numbingly bland. Then there are the Filmmaking 101 mistakes, like the choppy editing and inept lighting, which excessively cut up the performances or prevent us from making out facial expressions altogether. The action scenes are so aloof and stylized that they primarily serve to highlight the desperate heart-tugging of the rest of the film.

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But the greatest disappointment may be Henson’s squishy, physically unconvincing performance. We’re supposed to believe that Mary is a killing machine with a heart of gold, but, I dunno, that’s not a thing? Henson has Mary give away every lie on her face, and the actress doesn’t move like a highly trained athlete in her action scenes. Were they to meet, Cookie Lyon (Henson’s “Empire” character) would devour Mary, then toss off a delightfully catty bon mot about her predictable wardrobe. (“Another sheath dress, Boo Boo Killy?”)

I’d hoped “Proud Mary” would give us a new heroine worth rooting for. All it gave me was a laugh of recognition, when the woman in front of me at the Thursday night screening threw up her hands in disbelief at the ending.



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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ Film Review: Annette Bening’s Performance Elevates a Tepid Biopic

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The life stories of movie stars tend to follow the same arc: struggle, success, obscurity. Even the embellishments don’t vary much: addiction, plastic surgery, financial downgrades, messy personal lives.

The biography of noir icon Gloria Grahame, who won an Oscar for her nine minutes in “The Bad and the Beautiful” and has found a kind of immortality via the character Violet Bick in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” offers little deviation from the norm. So why dwell on the final years of Grahame’s life, when she was reduced to playing supporting roles onstage in mid-tier cities while battling breast cancer?

The only answer that “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” provides is Annette Bening’s marvelously helpless performance as a 50-something Grahame. If you told me that Bening had her spine replaced with titanium, I’d believe you in a heartbeat, so convincing is she as an enduring fortress in movies like “20th Century Women” and “The Kids Are All Right.” The girly, flirty voice that Bening uses as “Gloria” is, initially at least, a shock. The neediness and insecurity that Bening reveals, even as Gloria clings to her final shreds of dignity, are a revelation.

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But director Paul McGuigan (“Victor Frankenstein”) and writer Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) ultimately let their star down. “Liverpool” is a padded wisp of a drama, the first half’s evocative mystery gradually giving way to the second half’s surface-level reenactments. It’s entirely believable that the middle-aged Gloria didn’t disclose too much of herself to her 28-year-old lover Peter Turner (Jamie Bell, also great), through whose eyes we see the unhappy actress. (The script is based on the real-life Turner’s memoir.)

But the cautious result is that we learn too little of Gloria’s relationships to the parts of her life that seemingly mattered to her most: Her job, her peers, her children, her cancer, and the scandal that made her a pariah in Hollywood. (“Liverpool” refers only obliquely to the sexual relationship Grahame had with the 13-year-old son of her second husband, celebrated director Nicholas Ray. Later, Ray’s son, Tony, became her fourth husband.)

Bening doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Grahame — a fact that wouldn’t matter, except McGuigan occasionally brings it to our attention via vintage clips of the actress in “Liverpool.” The film toggles between 1979, when Gloria seduces (or maybe emotionally blackmails) Peter, a semi-employed stage actor, and 1981, when cancer has robbed her of her independence.

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Gloria and Peter are no longer together, but he obligingly brings his former paramour to the cramped and distressingly wallpapered home he shares with his graying parents, who have seen all of Grahame’s movies. If Mr. and Mrs. Turner (Kenneth Cranham and Julie Walters) were once starstruck, they aren’t anymore. “She ain’t swanning about Sunset Boulevard,” tuts Peter’s dad. Norma Desmond at least had a mansion.

“Liverpool” fills us in on the fling Gloria and Peter half-enjoyed. She tries to impress him with her oceanside bungalow and stories about her onetime neighbors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Gloria needn’t have tried so hard; Peter’s so provincial he’s bowled over by the idea of pizza delivery. There are a few wonderfully lived-in details like this, as well as a disco dancing sequence full of joy and valid criticisms of John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.”

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But as the film progresses, spotting the missed opportunities for narrative tension and character development becomes more compelling than the spare storyline itself. McGuigan makes a grave mistake in muddying up Gloria’s motivations in a pivotal late scene, and the fight between Peter and his plot-necessity brother (Stephen Graham, “Taboo”) over whether or not to inform Gloria’s children about her illness (despite the actress’s protestations) feels numbingly deflated of conflict, especially given the film’s painstaking avoidance of Gloria’s familial tangles.

Gloria’s obsession with playing Shakespeare’s Juliet (a character written as a 13-year-old) also begs the (never answered) question of how she felt about or internalized Hollywood’s dismissal of older or “difficult” women.

Grahame’s contributions to cinema are more than worthy of a reevaluation. Her complications, too, deserve more than this tepid, uncurious portrait.



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